Because it is almost Christmas and because I am eight years old, an age still young enough for a boy to want to go places with his parents, my father is driving us to look at all the pretty lights in the neighborhoods across town. I am sitting behind my mother; my father’s Stetson, which I am not supposed to touch, is near the rear window. From the backseat of our ’64 Falcon, the night looks like almost any other in Brownsville, the weather just a little colder and wetter than it was at Thanksgiving. As we pull away from our house, I see the artificial tree flickering in the window and the plastic Santa face with its rosy cheeks and scraggly beard hanging from the front door. The lady a few houses down from ours has set up a nativity scene next to her papaya tree, making sure to keep it behind her chain-link fence and close to the house so that nobody walks off with her baby Jesus. Around the corner, one of the shrimpers has a pink buoy the size of a disco ball hanging from the mesquite in his front yard, but this particular ornament stays up year-round, Christmas or no Christmas.
At the end of our street we pass the projects and Lincoln Park, where one night years from now a teenage boy will be found floating on the surface of the murky resaca, a drowning victim until they discover his stab wounds. After crossing International Boulevard, where the steady traffic is headed to Matamoros, my father takes the frontage road that passes just behind Guadalupe Church, avoiding Fourteenth Street and the row of cantinas where the police are always being called to break up fights. Alongside the freeway is Buena Vista Cemetery, which sits near the railroad tracks that divide one side of Brownsville from the other.
My father is taking the same route my mother takes every morning when she drives me to school. I come to this other side of town because she wants me to have a real teacher and not a teacher’s aide, like I used to at the school across the alley from our house. First my mother put me in a private school, and later, when it became too expensive, she put me in a public school in this part of town. What I remember from the private one is not the teachers but a shy boy in my class. I can still see him, staring down at his black loafers when his mother invites me to his birthday party. It rains the afternoon of the party, and we all stay inside the house while he opens presents. Out the back window is a swimming pool with a slide that spirals into blue water. It is the first time I have seen a real swimming pool at some place other than the civic center. Then, a few months after the party, a woman in a large car runs over the shy boy. The school holds a memorial and everyone attends and a lot of the girls cry, even ones who never spoke to him or showed up to his party. After this, no one mentions him again. But tonight, as my father happens to drive by the shy boy’s house, I see the top of the spiral slide and imagine the perfect blue water lapping against the sides of the pool.
In this neighborhood there are only a few streetlights to see who or what is walking in the street, which makes sense because no one is ever playing outside or walking to the corner store or smoking on their porch steps. Luminarias glimmer on the winding paths and Christmas lights twinkle from balconies and palm trees. One of the nativity scenes has a manger that looks large enough for me to stand under. In another yard a Santa waves mechanically at us from behind a team of cardboard reindeer. Next door an inflatable Santa is balanced on the roof, trying to find the chimney. Sometimes my father passes by for a second look.
Then, without saying much, my father pulls over and idles the car along the curb. Across the street is a two-story colonial brick home, stately with double front doors and white pillars that remind me of a library. In the window there is the flicker of what could be a blinking light, but otherwise the house is unadorned for the holidays. It is the first time my father has actually stopped the car tonight. My mother is looking at my father as he looks at the house, as if he is waiting for someone to invite us in.
“There’s where the judge lives,” my father says, barely lifting his index finger from the steering wheel.
His name is Reynaldo Garza, my father tells us, and in 1961 he became the first Mexican American appointed to be a U.S. federal district judge. I listen to my father and nod. I am still in third grade and not sure what a federal district judge is, and since we live in a town where just about everyone is Mexican or Mexican American, I am also unsure why exactly it matters to be the first. What I do know is that there are all kinds of men here, good and not so good, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, short and tall, fat and skinny, dark and light-skinned, but only one who is a federal judge. I know this means something to my father. It also means something to him that there is a photograph, which I imagine is probably in the house across the street, of Judge Garza shaking hands with President Kennedy. I know about Kennedy not just because he was the president and we studied him last year in school but also because my father owns only one book and it happens to be about Kennedy. He keeps the book under the table that has the lamp on it, and